After the EU referendum, many of us were suspicious about the role of Russia in clinching the narrow ‘win’ for Brexit.
Evidence was mounting that there had been deep involvement and interference by Russian ‘agents’ whose aim was to destabilise the EU by enabling Britain’s departure from it. It was no secret that Russia’s Prime Minister/President, Putin, held a long-term simmering resentment about the end of Russia’s ‘empire’ that spanned a huge expanse of Europe. In 2005 he declared:
- “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster”
A year after the EU referendum, in November 2017, I penned an article called, ‘Back to the USSR?’ I asked then whether the choice may come down to this:
- Do we support a European Union, that brings together our family of European countries in peace and prosperity; a cohesion we should not disrupt or harm with Brexit?
- Or do we support a new kind of Soviet Union, in which once again we lose those countries which only a short time ago re-joined us, and want to stay with us in our Union of Europe?
It had been clear for a long time that Russia had been using techniques to destabilise the European Union. It was becoming clearer that a win for ‘Leave’ was all part of that agenda. On 14 November 2017, The Guardian’s front page led with the headline:
- RUSSIA BACKED BREXIT IN FAKE TWITTER ACCOUNTS
The Guardian reported:
- ‘Concern about Russian influence in British politics has intensified as it emerged that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from St Petersburg published posts about Brexit.’
The next day, on 15 November 2017, The Times and The Sunday Times ran a front page with a different, but equally shocking claim, about Russia’s meddling with Britain’s referendum:
- RUSSIA USED WEB POSTS “TO DISRUPT” BREXIT VOTE
The Times reported:
- ‘Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently coordinated attempt to sow discord.’
Research by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California in Berkeley, had claimed that more than 150,000 accounts based in Russia switched their attention to Brexit in the days leading up to the referendum vote. Apparently, the messages were automatically created by ‘bots’ or cyborg accounts, and the analysis suggests they were viewed hundreds of millions of times.
The Times said that most of the Tweets they had investigated:
- ‘encouraged people to vote for Brexit, an outcome which Russia would have regarded as destabilising for the European Union.’
At the time, Tory MP, Damian Collins, then chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, commented, “This is the most significant evidence yet of interference by Russian-backed social media accounts around the Brexit referendum.”
Mr Collins added, “The content published and promoted by these accounts is clearly designed to increase tensions throughout the country and undermine our democratic process. I fear that this may well be just the tip of the iceberg.”
The Russian government strongly denied that it interfered with the EU referendum. President Putin said after referendum vote, “We closely followed the voting but never interfered or sought to influence it.”
But there was little doubt that many in the Moscow hierarchy welcomed the Brexit outcome. And remember, Putin also recently lied about Russia having no plans or intentions to invade Ukraine. Nothing he says can be trusted (unfortunately, that’s also the case with the utterances of our own Prime Minister, Boris Johnson).
Commented The Guardian about the claims that Russia had interfered in the referendum, “An EU without Britain would be less united on sanctions against Russia, many Russian officials hoped, because it would lose one of its stronger foreign policy voices and would be too consumed with its own internal problems to prioritise Russia policy.”
Immediately after the referendum, the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said Britain’s vote to leave the EU was, “a giant victory for Putin’s foreign policy objectives”.
Dennis McShane, a former Minister for Europe and Labour MP commented after the referendum,“The Russian president told Bloomberg in September 2016 that Brexit would lead to a smaller EU. Putin has always resented having to deal with the EU and insisted that only bilateral relations mattered for Russia.”
Mr McShane added, ‘If more evidence surfaces that the narrow Brexit result was influenced by an unfriendly foreign power, it will be harder to argue that a stolen poll should be the final word on Britain’s relationship with its friendly neighbours.”
Here’s an extract of what I wrote back in 2017 – because with Russia now attempting to brutally usurp Ukraine, and with other democratic European countries possibly now in its gunsights, my words of five years ago may make more sense today.
▪ DATELINE 2017: So, here’s the bottom line. Russia, a proud nation, is still wounded by the loss of its empire, the Soviet Union.
Most of the former countries and territories that had been shackled behind the Iron Curtain for decades decided to join the European Union after they had won their freedom almost 30 years ago. Those former Communist countries are now proud of their independence as returned-members of our European family, as members of the EU, and they are doing well. Those former Communities living in the sphere of the Soviet Union are now our continent’s fastest growing economies since they joined the European Union.
Poland, for example, sailed through the world-wide economic crisis unscathed. Since 2007 its economy has grown by a third, and it now has Europe’s fastest growing number of millionaires. And Romania was recently described by The Economist magazine as ‘the tiger economy of Europe’.
Both Poland and Romania are economically stable countries, with low inflation, relatively low public debt (public debt of Romania is only at 39% of the GDP), low interest rates and a relatively stable exchange rate. GDP growth in Romania is around 4% and in Poland around 3.5% – rates that our British government could only dream about. British businesses are significantly benefiting from the export markets in both Poland and Romania.
Former USSR member, Estonia, has become the world’s most advanced country in the use of internet technologies. Just a generation ago, it was still under Soviet domination as a very poor backwater on the Baltic Sea. Now it is a developed country and a member of both the EU and NATO.
But many of these countries fear that Russia wants its old territory back. Last June , Russia sent 2,500 troops to its border near Latvia and Estonia, making the people of those countries fear that their giant neighbour is planning conflict and annexation.
Newsweek reported at the time:
- ‘Concern has been mounting for years among some European officials over whether Russia could strike the Baltics following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.’
Anxiety about a possible war in the Baltics remains high, with most citizens of Lithuania and Latvia citing armed conflict as their prime concern. Russia has formally denied it would ever attack a member of NATO, which the three Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are. But the promises of Moscow diplomats have done little to assuage worries in the former Soviet Union states that are now established members of the EU.
Last month [October 2017] Der Spiegel magazine reported on a leaked NATO report that it would be unable to repel a Russian attack on its Eastern European members. Poland as well as Scandinavian and Baltic member states feel threatened by Russia and have urged the alliance to bolster its eastern flank against possible aggression.
Are we going to see an attempt by Russia to try and recreate something similar to the USSR?
Several prominent Brexiters have already expressed that their goal is to see the end of the European Union. Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of the government’s Brexit negotiators, said in 2010 that he wanted to see the European Union “wholly torn down.”
Michael Gove, MP, now the Environment Secretary, said similar comments during the referendum. He said, “Britain voting to leave will be the beginning of something potentially even more exciting – the democratic liberation of a whole continent.” He described Britain’s departure from the EU as “a contagion” that could spread across Europe.
Nigel Farage said on Talk Radio in Spain that he didn’t stop at Britain leaving the EU; he wanted to see “Europe out of the European Union” – in other words, the complete disintegration of the European Single Market.
These are the friends of Russia’s implicit aims.
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